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Veronica Swift and Emmet Cohen Return to Vail

Young jazz stars bring spontaneity and exploration to musical storytelling

If you think it’s an exaggeration to say that a talented singer’s vocal chords can do acrobatics, you have not heard Veronica Swift. Yet, the 25-year-old rising jazz star does not describe herself as a vocal acrobat. She doesn’t even refer to herself as a singer or a musician.

“What am I? I’m a storyteller,” she says. “A jazz singer is a storyteller. I aim to put the music and lyrics in perfect marriage. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”

Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift returns to Vail with the Emmet Cohen Trio just before the release of her Mack Avenue Records debut album, Confessions, on which she belts forth creative interpretations of obscure gems (eg:“Gypsy in My Soul” ) with the accompaniment of the Emmet Cohen Trio as well as the acclaimed Benny Green Trio.

In her young career, Swift’s vocal skills have also landed her gigs as a featured vocalist with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Michael Feinstein. Inspired by singers and strong musical personalities ranging from Anita O’Day to Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson, Swift’s earliest influences were her talented parents.

An only child, Swift began performing with her father, the late jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been second nature to Swift.

“My first serious instrument was trumpet. I was playing trumpet before I was singing jazz. I played the piano. I marched drum corps. I was always. I played in the all-state orchestra. There wasn’t ever a certain sense of duty,” Swift says. “I was always surrounded by some of the greatest legends of jazz, getting bootleg recordings, here in this environment. It wasn’t until I guess, high school, even though I’d been touring already at that point, where I felt a purpose. Until then, it was more like speaking a language, like speaking English … something I did without thinking.”

By the time she was 10, Swift was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.

She attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and then landed second place in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. Gaining quick traction in the jazz world, Swift has also dabbled in opera and theater … which brings us back to her aforementioned identity as a storyteller above all else.

For her, expanding her musical repertoire is the same as a poet expanding her lexicon.

“The more songs you know, the more vocabulary you have. I’m always learning songs and listening,” she says. “When I’m picking tunes, I’m always asking, ‘does this make sense with the story?’ I have a concept for every show. The story has to make sense. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. It’s the lyrics that draw me in. It’s like poetry.”

Swift refers to the Emmet Cohen Trio, which is comprised of Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, as “the best young musicians on the scene today,” rife with elegance, sophistication and most importantly, spontaneity.

“People will say to us, ‘oh you’re born in the wrong era.’ We are the culmination of our ancestors and our peers. We are constantly learning from each other. They’re all such creative people and it’s inspiring to constantly be moving forward together,” Swift says.

Cohen, who returns to Vail on the heels of winning the prestigious Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association, describes his trio’s role in the storytelling as “explorative.”

“We follow the energy of the room, that’s part of the magic of our presentation,” Cohen says. “We play in the style of all of our favorite bands, spanning a hundred years of jazz, from Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, to beboppers and some of our favorite, modern composers. We’ve taken a lot from the history of jazz and our own take on the way our music can be presented.”

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio

Vail Jazz Club Series

Aug. 7

Soaring vocalist Veronica Swift and The Emmet Cohen Trio (Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums) deliver a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, Aug. 7. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (get tickets here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. (get tickets here). Tickets at $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 8

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio take their musical stories up a few octaves at the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. GET TICKETS HERE.

Howard Stone: The Jezebel of Jazz

This year is the centennial of the birth of Anita O’Day (Anita Belle Colton), a daring jazz vocalist who developed her own style and created a vast body of innovative vocals while being tagged “The Jezebel of Jazz,” for her nonconformist ways. At mid-20th century, she was considered to be one of the top female jazz singers along with Ella, Billie and Sarah. In a career spanning seven decades, Anita rode the proverbial elevator of fame to the top, only to descend to the depths of hell on earth on more than one occasion. Somehow, she was always able to rise again.

Raised in an impoverished, broken home in Chicago, Anita left at age 14 in order to make a living competing in the marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. At 16, while dancing with a partner, she was asked if she could sing and responded by breaking out in song. The crowd showered her with money … and her destiny was revealed.

Howard Stone (above: Anita O’Day).

Anita returned to Chicago determined to be a singer and adopted her stage name. She sang wherever she could find a gig, developing unique timing and phrasing, mastering scat singing and trying new interpretations of the established repertoire. By 1941, the 21-year-old was hailed as the “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine and joined Gene Krupa’s big band.

Bands weren’t integrated then, but Gene’s band featured the great African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. When Anita and Roy performed in a duet, the mixed racial pairing was considered scandalous. However, their “Let Me Off Uptown,” was a hit, making Anita a star. (See the video here)

Other hits followed and for the better part of the 1940s, Anita would sing with prominent big bands, including Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. This was the big band era and each band had a “girl singer,” conspicuously seated in front of the band, projecting a glamorous image dressed in a strapless gown, while she waited for her turn to perform. Anita rebelled against the stereotype and wore a band jacket and a skirt to show that she was one of the band. Her attire was considered shocking and she was once again judged guilty of outrageous conduct.

By the end of the decade, she left the world of big band singing and went out on her own. She began performing at major venues with many jazz greats, culminating with her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The epitome of cool, flamboyantly attired in a black dress, white gloves and a wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, Anita projected a stunning visual appearance that appeared on the covers of national magazines, catapulting her to international fame.

From 1955 to the mid-60s, she recorded 17 LPs that confirmed her reputation as a unique song stylist, using an inventive technique fueled by the freedom to improvise, to sing before and after the beat. She combined a great wit with a fearlessness that led her to places others dared not go. “Given a choice, I wanted to be where the action was,” is the way she explained it. While this approach paid dividends musically, she paid dearly for it in her personal life, as there were failed marriages and affairs, no children and numerous abortions. After her triumph at Newport, the elevator ride up continued a while longer, but the seeds had been sown for a change in direction. Starting in the late 1940s, Anita had begun smoking marijuana and became addicted to heroin. She was jailed for possession and use of both marijuana and heroin on several occasions and regularly abused alcohol. She nearly died from an overdose in 1967, but she quit cold turkey in 1968 and made a miraculous comeback in 1970. She continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but in 1996, she had a terrible accident, suffering life-threatening injuries. Once again, at the age of 80 in 1999, Anita resumed her career, performing sporadically, but died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 2006. Her life story was brilliantly told in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, as well as in a compelling documentary film, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.

It is clear when reflecting on Anita’s life, that well before the #MeToo era, she was an extraordinarily talented, independent woman who was unwilling to be just “the girl singer in the band.” In the process, she inspired many young women jazz singers to do it their way. Veronica Swift, the remarkably talented 25-year-old, is one of the next generation jazz singers inspired by Anita. Veronica possesses perfect pitch, a stylish sense of phrasing and timing and can scat with the best of them. Whether she is interpreting the Great American Songbook or bebop classics, she says “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.” Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio on Aug. 7 in two shows at the Sonnenalp Hotel (Get Sonnenalp tickets here) and at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

 

 

 

The ‘dark side’ of a young vocalist

Jazz singer Veronica Swift’s unlikely role models have shaped her powerful stage presence

Veronica Swift’s wide range doesn’t just apply to her vocal talent. When citing her musical inspirations, the 24-year-old first names legendary jazz singer Anita O’Day. However, she is quick to point out that she’s also been greatly influenced by opera, hard rock and even metal.

“Marilyn Manson is one of my big influences,” Swift says. “It’s the draw of the theater, the great stories and the edgier side of music. Opera is one of my other passions. I like how opera and metal have such an edgier thing going, whereas jazz is the art of subtlety.”

Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift has written a rock opera (she describes it as “Lady Gaga meets Marilyn Manson”) and played a role in a low-budget zombie movie. But most importantly, she’s established herself as one of America’s greatest modern jazz vocalists. Her earliest musical influences were of course, her parents. An only child, Swift began performing with her father, celebrated jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been such second nature to Swift that she can’t even recall when it became a pivotal part of her life.

“Did you ever realize you enjoyed speaking English growing up? There was never a sense of duty about singing or playing music. It was my environment,” she says.

By the time she was 10, she was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole, singing a Telluride Jazz Festival duet with vocalist Paquito d’Rivera and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.

Her darker alter ego didn’t develop until college (she attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami).

“When I was in college, I didn’t do jazz for two years. I was doing the goth/metal thing,” she says, adding that it was her experience in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition (where she landed second place) and the passing of her father that “brought me back to my roots.”

“That set the seriousness and the tone. I got to thinking this is a serious career path. When I started performing from that point on, all the rage and frustration that I got to utilize with my rock stuff, that undertone was in the jazz tunes. It added so much to telling the story.”

Regardless of genre, some of the world’s greatest songs are born from sadness, anger and rough times and Swift believes that her “dark side” makes her a stronger jazz singer.

“100 percent it does,” she says. “When I’m dealing with some seemingly big deal … whether there’s a guy, or financial stuff, I put that energy into the music. You feel it physically. It’s alleviating the weight. You can’t hold it in and let it fester. You have to let out the darkness. You have to let people feel that together and rise above it.”

Swift possesses a strident and uncanny ability to hypnotize with her vocal instrument, performing powerful renditions of everything from the Great American Songbook to bebop to Frank Sinatra hits, also originals developed in vocalese fashion. If she were to isolate a single model for her dynamic style, O’Day is it.

“As a jazz singer, the woman who really inspired me was Anita O’Day, not just because of her voice and her approach, but because of her personality. Back then you either had to be really tough and kind of a bitch or really passive. You were either a Lucille Ball or an Ella Fitzgerald. Anita was one of the first female jazz singers to be one of the boys. She was one of the first to wear a suit.”

Swift’s song selection changes with every performance. Above all, she aims to capture universal truths.

“I’m always looking for songs that are more complex in that way. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. What am I? I’m a storyteller. A jazz singer is a storyteller. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: Veronica Swift with the Emmet Cohen Trio

Veronica Swift makes her Vail debut with the Emmet Cohen Trio at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Swift, who plays with the trio on the annual Jazz Cruise, promises “sophistication, elegance and spontaneity.” “They are some of the best young professionals on the scene,” she says. “People will say to us, ‘you’re born in the wrong era.’ They’re all such creative people. It’s inspiring.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here

 

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Art of Scatting

Well before the spoken word, early humans were singing (using their vocal cords to create musical tones) and to that extent, the human voice was the first musical instrument. Since language hadn’t yet evolved, it is speculated that the human voice was used to recreate the sounds heard in nature. What is certain is that singing is a universal human endeavor, found in all cultures and locations no matter how remote. As language evolved over the millennia, “singers” began to use words to tell musical stories, initially performed without instrumental accompaniment (a capella). As musical instruments evolved, the voice and instrumental music were combined.

The general consensus is that the first organized use of the voice was to sing and chant as part of religious ceremonies and rituals, but that over time singing became a form of entertainment. Informally, “folk music” was orally transmitted among the people of a region, but over time a more formal process evolved, with the lyrics and music of a song being written down and “published.” It was of course the recording industry and radio in the early 20th century that propelled singing into a mega world-wide business.

Howard Stone

At the heart of vocal music is the use of the human voice to deliver the lyrics, the words that tell the story, but that is not always the case as there are many vocal techniques used to create sounds, but not words, that aren’t therefore truly lyrics – humming, whistling and yodeling come to mind and very recently, beatboxing. In addition, there are many songs where the lyrics aren’t recognizable words. Musicologists referred to these as “non-lexical vocables” and many songs have been written with such “lyrics.” Whether it is “fa-la-la, la-la, la-la-la” of “Deck The Halls” or “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey Jude,” the lyricist has written the text of what is to be sung.

What happens when the vocalist decides to stray from the lyrics of the composer? In jazz there is a long tradition of doing exactly that. Known as “scatting,” the vocalist improvises by singing nonsense syllables creating his own melody and rhythm, much like an instrumental soloist does. But in this case, the voice is the musical instrument. Scatting can take the form of mimicking the sound of other instruments or the scatter can harmonize with his own instrument, such as a guitarist or bassist that scats along with his own solo.

The origin of scatting has been lost in history, although Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong has long been credited with having been the inventor of the technique. As the story goes, Satchmo and his Hot Five were in a recording session in Chicago on Feb. 26, 1926, when his music stand toppled over “scattering” the music and lyrics of the song he was singing, “The Heebie Jeebies.” Instead of stopping the recording, Satchmo sang an improvised passage of nonsense syllables, comparable to a “riff” he might have played on his trumpet, and legend suggests that is how scat singing was born. (Listen on YouTube: Heebie Jeebies-Louis Armstong and his Hot Five). In fact, jazz historians can point to earlier examples of scatting and probably what best explains the origin of scatting is the old New Orleans’ adage: “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” So even though Satchmo didn’t invent scatting, he made it extremely popular and ever since, legions of jazz singers have adopted the technique and taken it to new and exciting places.

Like foodies who have their favorite dishes, every jazz fan has his favorite scat solos. I could list dozens of my favorites, but space and the reader’s patience must be taken into consideration, so I’ll focus on two. Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” is considered to have been one of the greatest jazz singers of all time and a master of scat. Ella’s performance of “How High the Moon,” recorded live in Berlin in 1960, is one of the definitive examples of the art of scatting and some would say the greatest scat solo ever. During the course of her almost-seven-minute rendition of this standard, she spontaneously quotes the melodies of over a dozen tunes, with humor and technical command of her voice, combining different nonsense syllables to imitate the sounds of various instruments, while she artfully weaves together scat phrases and lyrics in a way that makes perfect sense to the listener (Listen on YouTube: Ella Fitzgerald How High The Moon Live in Berlin 1960).

The epitome of combining scat and humor is the performance of “Mumbles” by the legendary NEA Jazz Master, flugelhorn player and vocalist Clark Terry. Slurring words, Clark appears to be “speaking in tongues” using a vocabulary that sounds as if he is singing in a dialect of a long-forgotten Scandinavian language. His voice inflection, rhythmic conversational tone and mixture of an occasional recognizable word makes the listener believe that he is close to breaking the code of an almost comprehensible swinging language. “Mumbles” is the perfect example of how words and music can interact to lift the listen to a level of pure pleasure (Listen on YouTube: Clark Terry does “Mumbles” on Legends of Jazz).

Satchmo, Ella and Clark are no longer with us, but the art of scatting is very much alive today. It has been embraced by young jazz singers who are now adding their creativity to this unique vocal technique, one of whom is 24-year-old Veronica Swift, who scats like a seasoned pro, while combining perfect pitch and phrasing to her interpretations of the Great American Songbook and bebop classics. Veronica acknowledges being inspired by the great vocalists who preceded her, but is clear about her approach when she sings, “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.”

Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio in concert at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.